When Smokey’s Greater Shows rolled through the area for Bath Heritage Days over the last week, the rides, games and booths that signal the arrival of summer in Maine were staffed mostly by workers hired from overseas through the H-2B visa program.

“We could not do what we do without the program,” General Manager Robby Driskill said.

The H-2B visa program allows foreign nationals to enter the United States to take seasonal, non-agricultural jobs when the employer can show that there aren’t enough American workers willing or able to take the job. The program has a cap of 66,000 workers, split between summer and winter seasons.

Though Congress voted to nearly double the number of foreign laborers who can take part in the program in 2018, the demand for foreign workers still exceeds the supply. The Office of Foreign Labor Certification said it received requests for 81,008 workers for the summer months.

Just this week, President Trump’s resort in Florida, Mar-a-Lago, filed a request to the Department of Labor for 61 additional visas for foreign servers and cooks.

Driskill said the company tries to hire American workers for its shows, but there simply aren’t enough people interested in the seasonal work.

“Starting in January, we have to start placing ads up here in the local papers … that we’re looking for employees come May and June,” Driskill said. “It was less than five people that actually applied for the job. Knowing that, you can’t move 38 rides and 15 booth stands without the help of these guys.”

Driskill said Smokey’s Greater Shows has taken part in the H-2B program for the last 15 years, and currently most of his employees are foreign workers. Of the roughly 75-100 people he hires for the summer, 55 are brought in through the guest worker program. During Bath Heritage Days, 25 of the workers were guest workers, while 15 were American, Driskill said.

Levit Licona, 25, has been working at Smokey’s Greater Shows seasonally since he was 18. Originally from Veracruz, Mexico, Licona had no idea where the H-2B program would take him when he applied – just that there was a better paying job on the other end.

“You know the situation in Mexico – it’s not easy to find a good job there,” Licona said. “So we know many people like me who have come here before, so they tell me about the job. They say, ‘It’s a good job. It’s a good pay, especially when you’re sending it back down to Mexico.'”

Now, several years after making that leap of faith, Licona splits his time between Maine and Mexico, working six months with Smokey’s Greater Shows before heading south of the border to see his 3-year-old daughter. His wife also works with Smokey’s Greater Shows while their daughter stays home in Mexico with his mother-in-law.

Licona does a little bit of everything for the company, from painting to repairs to supervising.

“Levit, he’s got automotive paint experience from a body shop in Mexico,” Driskill said. “When we refurbish the rides here, Levit is a huge asset to the company by way of helping us rebuild and paint and all that stuff. Everybody’s got talents. Some guys have electrical talents. Other guys have welding talents.

“These guys wear, like, five different hats,” he added. “He’s a painter when we’re rehabbing, but out here he’s a supervisor and does electrical work.”

Even though Driskill and Licona are happy with the arrangement, there’s no guarantee that he’ll come back next year. Each year he and thousands of potential workers must reapply, knowing that there are far more applicants than those accepted.

Driskill said he tries to bring back the same employees year after year.

“We try to bring back the same group of guys year after year,” he said. “Levit’s been coming here for years. We have another gentleman that’s been here 15 years who’s up in Houlton right now. The core group of our employees, our leaders, we try to get back every year.”

Smokey’s was investigated in 2015 for two accidents in which several people were injured at the carnival at Head of Falls in Waterville that June. A civil charge against the Strong-based company was eventually dismissed because of insufficient evidence.

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